The total audience, network executives and political strategists say, could be as high as 100 million viewers—Super Bowl territory. That would surpass the 80 million who watched Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the record for a presidential debate, and rank among television benchmarks like the finales of M.A.S.H.and Cheers.
Not all viewers will watch from their living rooms. At the Dreamland Theater in tiny Nantucket, Massachusetts, so many are expected for a debate-watching party that the town assigned a police officer to stand watch in case of rowdiness.
In Paris, many of those abroad for Fashion Week are setting middle-of-the-night alarms so they can watch the debate live—at 3 am local time. “I need to feel like I’m part of this," said Laura Brown, InStyle’s editor-in-chief.
And in Richardson, Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse had to switch to a bigger room after overwhelming interest in a screening with refreshments like a “build a wall around it" taco salad.
Mass experiences—built around news events like the moon landing and pop culture moments for older generations like the “Who shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas.
But tight polls and curiosity about the unconventional Trump are luring viewers. In a New York Times/CBS News poll this month, 83% of registered voters said they were very or somewhat likely to watch Monday.
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“It’s a throwback to a phenomenon that has essentially disappeared in the era of digital media," said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News. “This is Americans gathering around the electronic hearth."
Advertisers, including Audi cars and Tecate beer, are taking advantage, introducing debate-themed commercials in the kind of tie-in marketing usually reserved for events like the Super Bowl. Although the debate will air without commercials, cable and broadcast channels have sold millions of dollars’ worth of ads for programming before and afterward.
Television networks and online streaming sites, including Facebook and Twitter, will carry the same feed Monday, showing a spare debate stage at Hofstra University, on Long Island, a format that predates the blaring graphics and space-age sets that now dominate television news.
Still, even if a large portion of the country is watching, what Americans see may be as much about their beliefs and preferred news outlets as what transpires onstage.
About 8% of registered voters remain undecided, according to The New York Times/CBS News poll, a thin if crucial sliver of the electorate. And after Clinton and Trump conclude Monday, viewers are likely to return to their ideological silos, absorbing instant analysis from left-leaning anchors on MSNBC or commentators at right-leaning outlets like Breitbart News.
Tom Sander, who runs a program on civic engagement at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said he was worried that voters might not have a chance to remove partisan blinders.
“Many of us come to these events more to confirm what we already think we know, rather than to search for common ground," Sander said.
The candidates may hope otherwise. Clinton has told donors privately that she expects 100 million people to watch the debate and that 60 million of those viewers may be focusing on the campaign for the first time, a prime opportunity for her to make inroads.
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Many may tune in merely for the spectacle.
“It’s like waiting for the Ali-Frazier fight," said Dick Cavett, the longtime talk-show host, referring to the highly anticipated boxing bouts between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the 1970s. Cavett said he would cut short a dinner Monday to ensure he would be in front of a TV by 9 pm.
“There’s possible drama and fireworks and insults and horror and disaster and potential enlightenment," Cavett said. “It would attract anybody."
The debate’s biggest televised competition Monday is likely to be another program featuring intricate strategies and crushing blows: Monday Night Football on ESPN. And one famous political junkie says he may flip the channel—for a few minutes, at least—to the action on the gridiron.
“The president’s fired up about Monday Night Football," Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, playfully told reporters who asked if Obama planned to watch the debate.
“There will be millions of people across the country who are quite interested to see the two candidates onstage together for the first time," Earnest added. “I imagine the president will be one of them." ©2016/The New York Times